Printing a New Chapter
By Siobhan Morrissey
May 1, 2008, 01:03 pm CDT
When James Grippando decided to write a children’s book, it was a drastic departure for the lawyer-turned-novelist. His crime and legal thrillers—many of which feature the exploits of fictional criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck—have become staples of the best-seller lists.
But it was just as big a departure for the publisher Grippando chose for Leapholes—his 2006 release for young readers—ABA Publishing.
There was, however, logic to the partnership. The ABA was branching out from the traditional nuts-and-bolts focus of its book-publishing efforts, and Grippando offered a high-profile opportunity to continue that stretch.
Leapholes—a play on a term of legal vernacular—features a lawyer who jumps through the pages of casebooks to go back in time. Along the way, readers meet key figures in seminal cases and events, such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56 that helped launch the modern civil rights movement.
“When I first started writing Leapholes, my oldest daughter was in first grade,” Grippando says. “It was Black History Month. She asked me, ‘Was Rosa Parks a real person?’ I told her yes, and about Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. My daughter asked why can’t we go there? I thought she meant Alabama. She said, ‘I want to go to 1955 and see Rosa Parks.’ We giggled about that. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Grippando, whose legal thrillers for grown-ups are published by HarperCollins, approached the ABA after seeing how it promoted The Shadow of Justice, a murder mystery written by prominent Miami defense attorney Milton Hirsch. Published in 2004, Hirsch’s book was the ABA’s first venture into works of fiction.
“A lot of what HarperCollins does is, you’re shooting out into the dark,” Grippando says. “The ABA has a rifle shot to people interested in the book.”
Since its publication, Leapholes has become popular with teachers, who use it in English and history classes. Now in its second printing, the book is a best-seller for the association, with more than 5,000 copies sold. (In legal publishing, a book that sells more than 2,000 copies is considered successful.)
Leapholes is just one example of how the ABA is trying to reach out to wider markets within the legal profession and, increasingly, among nonlawyers as well.
BOOK ON GOLF LAW SCORES
The ABA’s product catalog contains an active list of 1,000 book titles. The vast majority offer guidance on substantive topics—such as A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting and Toxic Mold Litigation—and advice on developing a law practice or achieving career satisfaction.
“The all-time classic here at the ABA is Jay Foonberg’s How to Start & Build a Law Practice,” says Bryan Kay, director of ABA Publishing. “I think we have sold more than 100,000 copies of that book over more than 20 years.”
But the 100 best-sellers listed on the Web Store page of the ABA’s website also contain a sprinkling of titles that depart from the usual ABA publishing formula. They include The ABA Legal Guide for Americans Over 50, The Little Green Book of Golf Law, The U.S. Supreme Court Coloring and Activity Book, and, yes, Leapholes.
And there’s more on the way.
John H. Minan, the author of The Little Green Book of Golf Law, for instance, is writing a follow-up, The Little White Book of Baseball Law, and has started planning The Little Red Book of Wine Law.
Minan, a law professor at the University of San Diego whose primary focus is water law, wrote The Little Green Book with his fellow avid golfers in mind, regardless of whether they also happen to be lawyers, and he’s approaching the baseball book in the same way.
“When you look at sports-related litigation, the two most prominent are, first, baseball and, second, golf,” Minan says. “I happen to be an avid golfer and gravitated to the golf cases that would be of interest to the general public.”
In the book, Minan addresses 19 cases, including the golfer who clubbed to death a nene, an endangered species that also happens to be Hawaii’s official state bird. The nene had interfered with his shot. The question for the court was whether the golfer should forfeit the assault weapon—his Big Bertha driver—or his entire bag of clubs.
“This gave me the opportunity to talk about the law of forfeiture,” Minan says. “At the end of the case I tried to tie the case to a rule of golf, which is another unique aspect to the project. I talk about to what extent there are any anger-management rules under the rules of golf.”
Work also is under way on a follow-up to the popular Supreme Court coloring book that will focus on the lawyers who have served as U.S. presidents.
(The coloring books are joint projects of ABA Publishing and the ABA Journal. ABA Publishing and the Journal also are planning a fiction-writing contest for prospective unpublished novelists who are lawyers or law students.)
ABA Publishing also has moved into electronic delivery of its products. Its Practice Essentials program offers chapters or entire books, as well as articles from selected ABA magazines, in PDF format that may be downloaded directly by computer. In addition, ABA Book Brief Podcasts are 10- to 15-minute audio presentations of interviews, discussions and readings from ABA books.
ABA Publishing is producing 130 new titles in the fiscal year that ends Aug. 31, compared to 80 five years ago. And the association’s books are expected to produce $11.15 million in revenue this year, compared to $6.5 million just five years ago.
Most of that income will go to ABA sections and divisions, which sponsor most of the books published by the association. When a section initiates a book project with editorial and technical assistance from ABA Publishing, any revenue goes to the section. ABA Publishing works with 24 association entities under that arrangement.
But this year, ABA Publishing will generate some $700,000 in earnings from its own projects. That money will go into the association’s general revenues. Five years ago, that amount was zero.
“The ABA is trying to expand its sources of nondues revenues,” says Paul W. Lee of Boston, who chairs the Standing Committee on Publishing Oversight. “Publishing is clearly one of the prime areas where revenues can be expanded.”
Kay, who directs ABA Publishing at the staff level, says the Harvard Business School Press provides a model for what the association might accomplish.
“They’ve grown that brand into a publishing house with $110 million in revenues a year, and there’s no reason we can’t do that here,” says Kay. “We have found that the ABA is a major publisher and has the opportunity to occupy a higher realm in the universe.”
Publishing is second only to dues as a source of revenue for the Section of Litigation, says C. Timothy Corcoran III of Tampa, Fla., who co-chairs the section’s Book Publishing Board. It also is an important tool for building membership.
“We ask ourselves, what do our members want and what do our members need?” Corcoran says. “That drives what we want to publish. A related point is that we recognize if we do a superb job of serving our members, the word will get around and that will be a retention and recruitment tool.”
IT’S TOUGH TO BE A CURMUDGEON
Through their publishing projects, some of the sections and other entities have helped formulate the ABA’s new publishing strategy. The Criminal Justice Section, for instance, sponsored Hirsch’s and Grippando’s books, and the Litigation Section has sponsored several books that depart from the traditional how-to formula.
One of those works is The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, in which a crusty senior partner at a fictional law firm dispenses always sage—but often sarcastic—advice to the firm’s junior members. The book evolved from a series of articles that ran in the section’s magazine.
Describing the Curmudgeon’s approach, author Mark Herrmann, himself a partner at Jones Day in Cleveland, says, “Where the mentor tells you in a kindly way, the Curmudgeon says, ‘Don’t do this.’ Instead of telling you what to do, he tells you what not to do.”
The Curmudgeon’s Guide has sold some 20,000 copies since it was published in 2006—not bad for a book that Herrmann says wasn’t typical for the ABA.
“I think my book was really weird for them because they were used to having books that were big and hard to read and had a narrow audience,” says Herrmann. “And mine was lighter and had a potential to appeal to a broader audience.”
Unfortunately, Herrmann may not have another Curmudgeon book in him. “It’s dangerous to your health,” he says. “You sit in a coffee shop and think, ‘E-mails. What really pisses me off about e-mails?’ You work yourself up into a lather that is just this side of a stroke.”